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Bacteria 'eat rare earths'

AS tensions escalate over a global shortage of rare earths, scientists have found new competitors for the precious minerals - bacteria.

German biologists have found that bacteria in a volcanic Italian “mudpot” use rare earths to produce energy, and could not survive without them.

It is thought to be the first time that rare earths, essential components in products from computers and mobile phones to military and medical diagnostic equipment, have ever been found to have a biological function.

Concerns over availability of the 17 rare earth elements have intensified since the major supplier, China, began restricting mining and exports – ostensibly for environmental reasons, but seen by some as a move to exploit its near monopoly.

Alternative sources are being developed from new mines, recycled electronic waste and tailings from gold and uranium excavations. Now biologists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, in Heidelberg, have found stores in cells of the Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum – an extraordinarily hardy bacteria discovered by Dutch microbiologists in a thermal spring near Naples.

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